Play is so important to childhood development that it has been recognised by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right for children. “If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less,” writes Peter Gray, a researcher and professor emeritus of psychology at Boston College.
Research has shown that the brain development and childhood play are bound together. Sergio Pellis, a neuroscientist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, believes that the brain matures and rewires itself during play, while children are figuring out how to navigate the world and each other.
Play time has declined in recent years, with more emphasis on schooling and extra murals and more screen time. But play is incredibly powerful. Just look at some of the benefits:
- Play is good for physical development - strength, balance, and so on.
- Play encourages communication and builds social skills.
- Play can boost imagination, independence and creativity.
- Play encourages risk-taking, exploration, problem solving and confidence.
- Play teaches skills like sorting, matching, pattern-recognition and sound-recognition, which are the basis for literacy and numeracy.
- Playing with others teaches children to cooperate, share, negotiate, take turns and compromise.
So, if you want to give your child more time to play, to help their development and just for the simple pleasures it brings, consider these approaches:
Get researchingIf you’re stumped about what games to play with your children, the internet has wonderful recommendations for children of all ages. While some sites might suggest activities that are too “crafty” or expensive to do easily, there are still loads of simple games to play with children that don’t require too many materials. If your child is at a preschool, ask the teacher for recommendations of any games that support what your child is learning about.
Be led by your child’s interestsYour child might hate finger painting but love separating items into categories (like separating out a bowl of red and white beans into their respective colours – but watch for choking!). She might be crazy about dinosaurs or obsessed with jigsaw puzzles. Of course, you should keep giving them the opportunity to try new things, but if there’s something they enjoy doing or are fascinated by, encourage their passion and make the time to do it with them. Help your budding palaeontologist build an entire prehistoric world out of cardboard or plasticine for her dinosaurs!
Let your child be boredThe magic really happens when a child is driven, through boredom, to consider the possibilities of a set of stacking cups or a pile of mom’s scarves. There’s nothing wrong with telling a child to go and find something to do or giving them the bare minimum of a suggestion (see how many different coloured stones you can find in the garden) and letting them work out the next step on their own.
Give them games and tools, but let them exploreSome children like to follow instructions while others like to direct their own play. Don’t insist that your child do exactly what the toy says on the box. Of course, there are some toys that lose their value if they aren’t used in the right way – like puzzles or other educational toys – so these should be used under supervision. But abstract toys like a box of blocks can become many different things, like a ramp for cars or the walls of a castle, and a ball of string can make spider webs or laser beams.
Get to the parkTry to visit your local park regularly, so that your child gets the opportunity to play on the jungle gyms, swings and merry-go-rounds (great for gross motor co-ord), and the chance to interact with other children (social development) in a purely recreational setting. It’s fantastic if your child plays naturally on their own but help them to coordinate hide and seek or Simon says if they seem lost.
Let your children make a messMessy play stimulates the senses and encourages curiosity and exploration. If they want to dig in a flowerbed, or “make a cake”, let them; they are having such valuable developmental experiences. Give them bowls of pasta, jelly or flour and water to play with. Research how to make a volcano or elephant toothpaste. And let them move all the furniture out of the way in the lounge and build massive forts out of sofa cushions.
Make sure to fit playdates into the scheduleSet up time with friends and plan an activity they can do together – like playing with dough – to give their playtime focus. When your child is older, they will learn to plan their own games and activities with a friend, but it can help to give them a nudge in the right direction in the earlier years.
Limit screen timeTry to follow the recommended limits for screen time. Kids can use their screen time up first thing on a weekend day or as soon as they come home from school, and then have to find something else to do after that. Or you can make your children carry out other activities (art, outdoor play, reading) before they are allowed to touch that “home” button.
Get down to the business of playChildren love to play - and there’s no right or wrong way to have fun, so help your child to explore their interests and enjoy themselves. The physical activity, spatial navigation and creative play are all doing wonders for their development.